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Theater Review (LA): Re-Animator The Musical at the Hayworth

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How do you take a cult classic horror movie based on a short story by cult author H.P. Lovecraft and transform it into a full-fledged musical with the right balance of campiness and grue to please its legion of fans? Re-Animator‘s original director, Stuart Gordon, along with original screenwriters Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris, have taken on that challenge and succeeded admirably – with big messy buckets of ingenuity.

Re-Animator The Musical follows the plot of the 1985 film, told mostly through brilliant songs by composer/lyricist Mark Nutter. One reviewer referred to his score as “putrescent Sondheim,” which is quite astute, given the complicated and immensely amusing phrasing of many of the numbers. Nutter even incorporates some of the film’s key lines (“Get a job in a sideshow”) into his songs, delighting the diehards in the audience.

Original composer Richard Band gets his tribute, too. His notorious “disco Psycho” theme is heard twice, first as the overture and again during the climactic assault by the reanimated corpses, when Hill orders them to queue up for an undead conga line.

The cast is sensational. As the intense Herbert West, Graham Skipper pays tribute to Jeffrey Combs’ iconic portrayal while making the role truly his own, playing off the equally terrific Jesse Merlin as his nemesis, Dr. Carl Hill. Chris L. McKenna, who’d worked with Gordon on the neo-noir King of the Ants, plays fellow student Dan Cain with a cheerful kind of madness, and Rachel Avery is fine as Megan, Dan’s fiancee and the object of Dr. Hill’s unnatural lust.

George Wendt (also in Ants) is hilarious as Dean Halsey. Who knew Norm could sing? The zombified dean even performs a riotous duet of sorts with Hill that brings to mind Peter Boyle’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number with Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein.

The team behind the gore effects for the 1985 film were also involved in this production, and the way they adapt certain effects for the stage are simultaneously clever and intentionally slapdash. The blood flows so freely, in fact, that the first four rows of seats are designated as the “splash zone.”

Gordon handles the material perfectly (and well he should), walking the fine line between camp and tribute. It’s this enthusiastic mixture of professionalism and a feeling of improv that makes the show a real winner. Speaking of winning, it just received a slew of L.A. Weekly Theatre Awards and is on its way to New York and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – where I’m sure it’ll also be enthusiastically received – after it finishes its run here.

Re-Animator The Musical plays Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays at 8:00 p.m. and Saturdays at 7:00 and 10:30 p.m. at the Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, through July 8th. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 960-4442.

Production photos: Thomas Hargis

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About Kurt Gardner

Writer, critic and marketing expert whose passion for odd culture knows no bounds.